Monday, October 12, 2009

A Quick Stroll Through Kyoto

 (Fushimi-Inari-Taisha - amazing temple site South of Kyoto with 4 km of walkways lined with orange/red archways.  This was one of my favorite spots, wandering the trails of torii.)

 (Another random, inspiring of hundreds in the city.  Our hotel sat next to two large temples, though that can probably be said of most hotels in the city.)

 (Tenryu-ji - scenic temple, gardens and Arashiyama bamboo forest nearby.  Approx 1 hr 20 minute bus ride from Kyoto train station, but the bamboo forest is certainly worth it.)

 (Ryoan-ji - Famous rock garden.  Good for tranquility, not so good for greenery.)

 (Kinkaku-ji - Golden Temple - one of the most popular temples in a beautiful setting, but be prepared to push some people around to get this picture as there are usually big crowds here....still worth it, though.)

 (Ginkaku-ji - Silver Temple.  Nice garden in the back, manicured rock garden and scenic temple.  Well worth a visit...sadly, you can't walk across that little stone bridge.)

 (A higher view of the Silver Temple from the top of the adjacent garden, looking back down towards Kyoto.)

 (I believe this is Chion-in?  There were so many beautiful temples that I may have lost count, each one well-manicured and elegant.  Not quite like me, especially when backpacking around a country.)

 (Looks like another amazing temple...)

 (Kodai-ji - lit up at night for an amazing display.)

 (Lit bamboo forest in Kodai-ji.)

(Arashiyama Bamboo Forest...not always this empty, but an amazing spot...this path leads up about half a mile lined with thick bamboo.  This could possibly be the road to'll have to go visit to find out.)

A Snapshot of Tokyo

 (The impressive entrance to Senso-ji Temple in Asakusa.)

 (Modified capsule hotel/hostel with a tiny tv, a bed and not much Asakusa area.  It's hard not to sing Yellow Submarine while looking at this picture.)

(Senso-ji Temple at night...not too shabby.)

 (Ginza - big buildings, high end shopping, and a good central location.)

 (Shinkansen/Bullet Train.  It moves so fast, you can hardly see it...except now, when it's very obviously the futuristic looking machine in the center of the picture.  As expected, the train was smooth, comfortable and convenient.  I had a 3 week unlimited pass, so I took a day trip from Tokyo to Hiroshima and back on my last day, which is pretty amazing when you look at a map. )

 (My second time at Senso-ji at night, and the whole walkway was lined with beautiful lanterns...probably because they knew I was coming back.)

 (Entrance to the Imperial Gardens in central Tokyo...the moat around the building helped keep intruders away, but it couldn't stop me.  I wisely used the paved bridge across.)

 (Inside the Imperial Palace/Gardens.  It's a nice area to relax and walk around for an hour or two.  The gardens are good, though Kyoto and other parts of the country have more impressive ones.)

 (Mass, yet organized, chaos at Shibuya Crossing.  This is literally steps outside the Shibuya subway station and a good spot for sushi.  Also, if you've seen the movie Hachiko about a dog who was loyal to his owner even after he died, there is a monument to the dog about 20 feet behind me as I was taking this picture.)

 (Craziness of the Shibuya area.  You might feel lost, but if you look closely, you can find comfort in the familiar face of the Burger King logo.  Ahhhh, good ole 'Merica.)

 (Nice night views of the city for free from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Offices in Asakasa.)

 (Random lanterns.  This is Tokyo.  Trust me.)

 (Neon lights, masses of people and so much more in Shinjuku....)

 (With the ubiquitous vending machines, you can buy almost anything, so with the help of the store clerk for some translation assistance, I bought tickets for a sumo event from one of the kiosks in 7-11.  It's an all day event, but the good stuff happens in the last hour.  During the first couple of matches, I wandered down near the front few rows into the expensive seats before being detected as very obviously out of place.  My real seat was the second to last row in the building.)

 (Very early morning at the Tsukiji Market.  Massive tuna is brought in, cut and sold in a huge mix of money, tourists and burly fishermen.)

(A view of the city from the Tokyo Tower...check out the silhouette for a hint of the Tokyo Tower.  It's like a red, Japanese version of the Eiffel Tower.)

Friday, October 9, 2009

Leaving Singapore and Southeast Asia

With my final night in Singapore and a flight at 5 am the next morning, I decided to simply explore the city for a few more hours and then spend the night at the airport, since I would otherwise have to get up around 2:30 am and get an expensive taxi to the airport anyway. I left my bags at the hostel and began to explore a few final corners of the city, mostly ending up going back to the colonial downtown area with a few nice-looking buildings and some of the historical structures in town, as opposed to the many apartment high-rises and corporate buildings that don't have quite as much character. I had a final meal at the wonderful food courts, opting for the signature dish of the country, chicken rice which is just a simple but delicious meal with white rice and chicken served with a bit of soy sauce and a bit of chili sauce. I also couldn't resist the temptation of fresh squeezed lemon/lime juice, which was amazing and very much worth the dollar that I paid.

After dinner, I headed back to the waterfront to watch the sky darken above the skyline and the Merlion, half-Mermaid, half-lion statue that spurts a water fountain into the bay and is the strange symbol of the country. As expected, the tourist crowds joined me, but it was a clear night, and the deep blue sky made a good backdrop for the statue and the city, gradually illuminating itself as the night set in. Slowly, deliberately, I made my way back to the hostel to grab my bags and over to the airport around 10:30, making sure to not miss the last subway line to the airport but in no hurry otherwise. I didn't really know what to expect in the airport, remembering it to be pretty nice, and I found a website made by travelers that rates it as the best airport in the world in which to sleep, so I had high hopes for the place. The only trepidation was caused by a few negative comments on that sight, saying that it can actually be the best or one of the worst, depending on where you are in the airport. I also saw a few signs aobut a huge event at the airport that afternoon, a race featuring an airplane against a race car, speeding down one of the runways. It also said that this was the first race of its kind IN ASIA, meaning that this rather idiotic waste of fuel has also been performed on another continent at one time or another. It would have been interesting to see, but I didn't feel that I should plan my day around it, so I ended up a few hours too late for the show, and I don't think I ever figured out who won. From what I heard, it was quite a close race, though, and they had to go to the video booth to declare the winner. So dramatic. They probably staged that, actually, in an effort to drum up more excitement about the country.

The bad news was that right about this time, I started feeling pretty sick, which is rare for those that know me. Darren, the motorcyle rider that I met back at the hostel, had come down with a really bad flu that morning, along with someone else in his room, so I really hoped I hadn't picked it up, though it felt like I did. Even worse, I was flying to Japan that next morning, and I didn't know what I'd do if I was sick when I got there, since the quarantine regulations are pretty strict there, especially with the H1N1 virus going around. So, as the subway shook and bounced back and forth, I began to feel woozy and light-headed, also getting chills and feeling almost nauseus. I just hoped the ride would end, and after about 45 minutes, it did. I rambled my way into the airport, hoping things wouldn't keep getting worse, urging my immune system to fight this bug off quickly. Moving through the airport sheepishly, I asked around and found that the only nice places to sit/lay down are within the terminal, and you can't enter there until 3 hours before your flight, so I was resigned to lay across one of the few hard rows of seats, with the seat edges jabbing me in the side as I tried to adjust to find a comfortable position. Still feeling terrible, I bundled up in more of my clothes to fight off the cold chills and made a sort of baracade around myself with a luggage cart to try to keep my bags safe while I slept for an hour or two, remembering the terrible experience of sleeping in the airport in Tahiti and having all of the bags of my sleeping neighbor stolen during the night. As you'd expect, I didn't really get much sleep, but when my alarm went off around 2:30, the time when I could go in the terminal, I was fortunately feeling better. I wasn't back to 100%, but I wasn't freezing anymore, nor was I light-headed or nauseaus. Things were looking better for my flight, though I hoped that my condition would keep improving as quickly as it had come.

Within the terminal, I found what everyone was raving about. There is free internet and a few nice benches and lounges. I even saw a sign for a free 10 minute neck and shoulder massage from one of the spas in the airport, open 24 hours. After my terrible sleep in such a contorted position, that sounded perfect, so I circled the terminal and finally found the spot just before 4 in the morning. Unfortunately, I investigated and only found a few of the workers and patrons asleep on the reclining chairs, and I didn't feel like I could justify waking them for a free service that they were offering, so I had to pass on the tempting massage. Further on, I did find a leather chair with free massaging features on the legs and feet, and this was decent, though it was nothing compared to what the real massage would have been.

Soon, I boarded the plane and met my seatmate, a true Mississippi redneck who was working with Haliburton or some company like that with assignments all over the world, entertaining me with a few stories from his last two months spent in Vietnam on a boat with a bunch of locals who spoke very little English, though one did manage to convey the 'throat-slitting' hand gesture to signify that he was going to kill him, though my American friend said he wasn't worried. Even better, my health was almost back to normal, so once again, my body had made quick work of the flu bug that had kept Darren out of action for a while, and I was glad that I wouldn't end up in a small hospital room in the Tokyo airport.

(Singapore is a food destination, and it definitely didn't disappoint in that respect.)

(A bridge over the Singapore River by Boat Quay, near the colonial district, one of the prettiest areas of the city.)

(I once again visited the Merlion. With his (or her) mix of lion and mermaid charm, I felt mysteriously drawn to the place.)

(This strange creature really does know how to attract the tourists, including myself.)

(Looking North across the bay from the Merlion towards the Esplanade - Theaters on the Bay and some office towers.)

(And then back to the Merlion. If you pasted a few of these pictures together, you could pretty much get the exact viewing experience from that evening, free from the chattering crowds and camera flashes.)

(Singapore's two biggest landmarks, the Merlion and the Esplanade, in one picture. Just order some Chinese, Malaysian and Indian food and stare at this picture and you've pretty much got Singapore covered.)

(One final shot from the bridge of the Esplanade aka upside-down durian, the Singapore Flyer (the world's largest observation wheel) and the rising full moon - probably my last notable view of Southeast Asia.)

Back in Singapore, Taking It Easy

Getting back to Singapore for just a few days before heading up to Japan and South Korea, I decided to just take the brief stop to relax, as I had already seen most of what I wanted to see before. I liked the city the first time, but there weren't that many really impressive sights or areas, with the food being one of the primary attractions. I really liked the feel of the Kampong Glam area, the Muslim district near Little India and close enough to the tourist center, so I found a cheap hostel there, and the place was very nice and quiet, making me think that I should have stayed there during my first stop in the city. In the hostel, I walked in to find a man about 35-40 years old, looking extremely frustrated as he banged away on his tiny laptop, unconnecting and reconnecting his iPod in apparent frustration. In his South African accent (which I really like), he asked me if I knew anything about that sort of technology, obviously very frustrated with what was going on. He had just bought the iPod and computer in Singapore, and he explained that he had shattered his last two laptops in fits of rage, and the guy, with long sideburns, moustache and goatee and the perfect bad-ass biker image, didn't seem far away from repeating the process. After about an hour of work, we got things connected properly, in between him telling me stories about his travels, his motorcycle club/gang that he just joined - apparently the second one behind Hell's Angels, and his job working on offshore oil drills all over the world. He was a very interesting character, and also a guy who you always want to have on your side, so I had fun talking with him, even showing me his newly purchased motorcycle around the corner. Later, I heard him complaining/threatening the manager, saying that one of this bunkmates had attempted to steal his shoes, though he let them know that he'd take care of it. Little encounters like this always add some excitement and intrigue to even the most routine days.

Coming from some of the chaos of Malaysia and, moreso, Indonesia, I think I appreciated Singapore more this time around. It's clean, safe and extremely easy, like a benign introduction for Westerners into the Asian culture, without just being thrown into the mix. It is a little more expensive than Malaysia, but the great variety of food is still relatively cheap, and I was also a little more accustomed/acclimatized to the heat and humidity, so walking around the city was a little more relaxing. In addition, returning to a city that you've visited before, you have an idea of what to expect, what areas you like and don't like, etc, so it is almost like coming home in a sense, already knowing how to navigate the subway, the layout of the city and other important things when first arriving in a new place.

As before, I found Kampong Glam to be an attractive, quiet neighborhood just on the edge of all of the action of the city. And in the midst of Ramadan, this was more true than ever. In the warm evenings, I walked up and down the streets, relaxing in the sedate atmosphere in front of the mosque, walking up and down the wide street sandwiched by two or three story buildings lining each side of the street, side by side, traversed by strings of green and white lighting giving the area a festive, though not obnoxious, feel that I really liked. Walking around the back of the mosque, I found a Ramadan market with food stalls day and night (during the day for the non-Muslims), and I also found a pretty street leading out from the mosque, filled with street cafes and sidewalk seating, lined with a few rows of elegant palm trees. This was obviously also a bit of a tourist area, but it was not overdone, still retaining the friendly feel of the quiet neighborhoods surrounding it.

During the day, I walked around a bit, finding a travel agency to buy my Japan Rail pass, a great deal for unlimited train travel only available to foreigners and only available to be purchased outside of Japan, so that was my crucial task during this time in Singapore. I also sent a small box home from the post office, getting rid of a few of my souvenir shirts and things I wouldn't need anymore, happy to let go of anything from my heavy bags. On the way back from the post office, I saw one tall building standing above the rest of the area, so I figured I'd try my luck to see if I could get up to some sort of viewing platform or at least just look out the window on the top floor. I walked in the mixed residential/office building and headed straight for the elevators, acting like I knew what I was doing. I went up to the 39th floor (out of 41, though the top two were blocked), but I found two office entrances with no one around, meaning that I couldn't get to any of the windows. Disappointed, I headed down, but I saw an advertisement in the elevator for some new high rise apartments that were being displayed on the 38th floor. So, I took the even-numbered elevator back up and found the perfect spot on the 38th floor. There was a huge showroom with information on the developments in the area, and I explained that I actually wasn't interested in buying and just wanted to see the views, so they allowed me onto the wraparound deck, providing amazing bird's-eye views of most of Singapore. Eventually, one of the workers who had nothing better to do came out and greeted me, pointing out a few of the sights and areas and serving as a free tour guide, as well as telling me about the plans of developing the area.

Basically, it seems as though Singapore suffers from a bit of an inferiority complex. Things are great there, with cleanliness, safety and wonderful food, but being a tiny country trying to make its mark on the world economy and tourist industry, they are always comparing themselves to others, trying to make the world's tallest or the world's biggest or anything that will put themselves on the map. In this same vein, much of the developers plans mentioned making things like Hong Kong's harbor, which is apparently the vision of these builders, creating an urban metropolis surrounding the bay, though I couldn't help but think that they'd be better off just trying to create their own, unique cityscapes and neighborhoods. Other than the observatory and more great food stalls, Singapore was fairly quiet and pleasant this time around, allowing me a day or two to prepare for my next two big destinations.

(A wonderful meal at one of the many food courts of Singapore. This is a Thai dish of basil, chili and ground beef, with a few leaves of lettuce for wrapping. For those that know me, it really doesn't get much better than this in terms of flavor and simply the ingredients used.)

(Kampong Glam, the Muslim district of Singapore, was once again my locale for a few days, and the streets were lit up at night in celebration of Ramadan. There was also a wonderful calm/feeling of tranquility in the evenings here, and it was a nice break from the hectic pace of travelling.)

(Singapore's signature meal - chicken rice. It is basically a Chinese type meal with a sliced chicken breast and a few spices served on top of white rice with soy and chili sauces for dipping. As simple as it sounds, it really is great. Also great was the freshly squeezed limeade that I couldn't resist.)

(After sweet-talking my way up to the top of an office building, I was treated to magnificent views of the city below from a wrap-around deck/observation point on the 38th floor.)

(The area of red roofs is the mostly Muslim and Malaysian community of Kampong Glam, with the gold mosque in the middle of it all. My hostel would be just slightly off to the right of this picture.)

(Cruising the streets behind the mosque revealed more picturesque areas that I had missed during my first visit.)

(In one of these shops, I stopped to watch some soccer highlights and won a 25 cent bet with a random tourist who was trying to convince me that the goalkeeper was Belgian. I remembered many details of the World Cup match being presented, and eventually he finally agreed that the guy was actually Dutch, like I said, and I won my money as he shamefully faded into the tourist mass from whence he came.)

(Colorful shutters down by the riverfront in downtown Singapore.)

(Again, the old and new of Singapore. Same old type of picture, slightly new commentary.)

Sarawak Cultural Village

Feeling that I had seen most of what I had wanted in Malaysia and specifically Kuching, I just planned one activity for my last half-day in Malaysia before heading back to Singapore in the evening - a trip to Sarawak Cultural Village. Though I knew it would be touristy, this park created about an hour outside the capital city attempts to create the traditional houses/living environments of many of the major ethnic groups found throughout the country. After leaving my bags behind at a nearby hotel, I caught the shuttle, finding myself to be the only rider, and I was soon at the park, though I felt bad that I had a few crackers on the ride over and offered some to my driver who reminded me that he couldn't eat during Ramadan; it wasn't a big deal at all, but it would have been better if it hadn't have happened.

The tourist destination actually appeared fairly quiet and uncrowded, and I found out that it is often crowded with Malaysian tourists, so Ramadan kept it calm for the month, which was a good thing for me. Entering the center, you pass through the gates towards a small brown lake, along which runs a wooden boardwalk, connecting 7 dwellings of all different styles. At each stop, there are a few people dressed in the traditional costumes, often performing songs, music or crafts associated with that particular ethnic group. They also give you a cheesy little passport at the start of the park, encouraging you to stamp your passport at each of the different villages/houses. Circling around, the first two were the least interesting to me, featuring a traditional Chinese house and then a colonial Malaysian one, both fairly Westernized.

Next, I moved on to a few of the more traditional rainforest cultures, approaching the massive tallhouse of the Melanau people who only make up about 6% of the Malaysian population. This huge structure sits on high stilts, helping protect it from attack and presumably flooding, featuring a huge interior big enough for a few families and a kitchen, living room, etc. Within the house, the separate levels are connected by narrow 'ladders' that are simply slanted logs with steps carved into it, making the climb a bit tricky, especially for those with big feet that don't quite fit into the little niches. Moving on, I visited the colorful stilt house of the Orang Ulu, a name that means the Upriver People, another group that originally lived in the rainforests of the country. This was not as massive as the tallhouse, but it is also set on shorter stilts, keeping the house off the forest floor below, revealing numerous rooms inside, decorated with black, white and red paint in various swirls and tribal designs, adding a brightness not found in some of the other pure wood structures. The 'local inhabitants' were also busy carving a few logs into traditional guitar-like instruments that I believe are called sape.

Past the Orang Ulu portion, I found the tiny huts used by the Penan people who are still nomadic hunters in the forest, moving around when the food supply becomes low, hence the simple huts made from bamboo, wood and palm leaves. The little huts were very basic, and apparently a large portion of the Penan people (who make up a small portion of Malaysia) still prefer to live away from the modern cities, moving in and out of the jungle as they please. At this hut, I also got to try my skills with the blow pipe again, shooting a few darts at a target hung on a tree about 20 yards away. My aim was slightly better than it was when I tried this back in Taman Negara at the start of my trip, but I still missed the bull's eye.

Twice a day, the center holds a performance featuring songs, dances and traditional costumes of all of the featured cultures, so this was my next stop, though I wondered what ethnicity these people really were, as the same 7-10 people would perform each dance, changing outfits and dance styles depending on the song. Afterwards, I visited the Iban longhouse, one of the most well-known native dwellings in Malaysia, and tourists can often spend a night or two in the real longhouses up the rivers from some of the cities in Borneo, though the experience is obviously not quite authentic, since you have to arrange it through tourist-bureaus. As with the other structures, the longhouse is made of simple wood and bamboo construction, and this one is known for the long, narrow shape with a long common area running down the middle, flanked by the rooms of the individual families. Whole villages can actually share the same longhouse, so this really is where everything happens. My final stop was at the large, circular hut of the Bidayuh people, a group who were once headhunters and displayed some of their weapons and fruits of the hunt along the walls in the entrance to the house.

Being my last day in Malaysia, I hoped for a good lunch, and the cafeteria in the Sarawak Cultural Village actually wasn't terribly overpriced, so I was happy to find a good version of the fried noodles, kway tiao, that I love, and I was also able to try one of the Bornean specialties, jungle fern. The fern is basically steamed and flavored with just a bit of Malaysian spices, and the slightly crunchy green vegetable was pretty good, not all that different from what you'd expect it would taste like. This lunch was also crucial because the day before I had a very average noodle dish, and given my high expectations for Malaysian food that rarely disappoints, I regretted my choice of cafes, and I didn't want to end the culinary portion of this journey on a low note, so I was glad that I found a decent meal for my last taste of the country. Back in town, I grabbed my bags and headed off to the airport, ready to get back to Singapore that evening. I had actually booked two flights from Borneo to Singapore, one from the North end of the island (in Kota Kinabalu) and one at the South end (in Kuching), as there was a sale on Air Asia. The sales, and even normal prices, are so cheap that it was better for me to book both tickets and simply lose one in order to give me more flexibility in travelling through the region, and by booking a week or two in advance, I got each ticket for just about $20 including taxes, so I thought it was a good idea. In fact, the Air Asia flights are so cheap that it makes me wonder about coming back to Kuala Lumpur, the hub, and just using that as a base for traveling throughout Southeast Asia, as their network is pretty good.

With my last week or so in Malaysia, I remembered why I had liked the country the first time around, with its good mix of great food, Asian and indigenous cultures, ease of travel thanks to good infrastructure and English speakers and relative calmness compared to other parts of Southeast Asia. As I said before, the whole country came as a pleasant surprise to me, and I wouldn't mind returning in the future...

(One of the aptly named tallhouses. I believe this one is used by the Melanau people, but I could be wrong.)

(This is a traditional longhouse used by the Orang Ulu (up river) people. Though these are re-creations, they are exactly as you'd find them throughout the country, though you probably wouldn't find all the different styles so nicely situated around one small lake.)

(The workers put on a show for us with a few different dances and songs from the showcased cultures of Malaysia.)

(Loin cloths even made an appearance, though fortunately color-coordinated spandex help keep it safe for the kiddies watching. Actually, there were surprisingly few people at the village. We were told that because of Ramadan it was pretty much only foreign tourists, and it's usually crowded with Malaysians on holiday at other times.)

(One of the huge longhouses on display at the village. Many of the houses were filled with people dressed in local costume, making food or crafts typical of that ethnic group. I had some crackers made from ground flour from the sago tree - not too bad.)

(A specialty of the area - jungle fern. It was pretty good, not much different than some sorts of spinach or similar greens.)

(Here's the setup - the houses are situated in a circle around the small lake, making it easy to explore each of these cultures in brief 15 minute periods, though I get the feeling I didn't quite learn everything there is to know about the 7 featured cultures during that time.)

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